Sunday, March 13, 2011

Lent I - Patience

The list of folks I am indebted to this week is long. So many good ideas, angles, and thoughts. First off, my thanks to Paul J. Nuechterlein, Gil Bailie, and the writings of Rene Girard; also Laurel A. Dykstra and Sojourners, and Fred B. Craddock.

In case you're wondering about the commentator I mention in my sermon, both Vanity Fair and Mother Jones reported on it. The Vanity Fair article includes a video link.

Though the prayer does not appear here, I have once again adapted the World In Prayer for the Prayers of the People.

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Romans 5:12-19
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned —sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law.Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.
But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification.If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

Matthew 4:1-11
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

This is the Word of the Lord.

You spend long enough in church, and you realize that Christians tell the same story over and over even though we know how it ends. We dread the Crucifixion even as we anticipate the resurrection. As we turn from Epi¬ph¬any to Lent we leave the joy and wonder of the incarnation, moving from revelation and recognition to the hard work of repentance.

Forgetting that we were created for joy, many of us wrongly equate repentance with renouncing pleasure. We act as if our greatest sins were watching too much TV or eating too many chocolates. By “giving them up for Lent,” we continue to participate in the culture of consumption and individualism by adopting something that is little more than a program of self-improvement.

We forget that Lent, like Christianity, is not about us.

Well, Lent is a little bit about us, because Lent reminds us of who we are, and whose we are, and what we are called to be, over against who our surroundings, the media, and our society tell us we should be.

We live in a self-centered society. It seems that, from birth, we are conditioned to view every event, every disaster, every new development through a filter of what it means to me, what do I get out of it, how will I be affected.

I saw a striking example of this on CNBC this past week. As the world was reeling from the shocking news coming out of Japan – so many hundreds killed in the strongest earthquake ever recorded, so many more hundreds drowned or washed out to sea in the tsunami which followed, and so many more rendered homeless, either from earthquake or flood damage, or from evacuation from the vicinity of two nuclear power plants – one commentator, seeing that the US stock market had not fallen, said, and I am quoting, “The human toll here looks to be much worse than the economic toll and we can be grateful for that.”

When I heard this, I confess that I sat there gape-mouthed. I wondered how anyone could be so callous, so tone-deaf, so disinvested in the human race to think that the stock market is more valuable than human life?

We people of faith know where it all began. It all began in the Garden.

Paul writes, in our reading today from the book of Romans, that “…sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned…” Sin brings death. We all know this. It’s one of the most basic lessons of Christianity. It began in the Garden and continues today.

At least one theologian suggests something very interesting about what Paul says. There is, it seems, an ambiguous statement in the original Greek there at the end. Gil Bailie says that the phrase is actually, “because of this all have sinned;” and it could refer either to Adam’s sin in the Garden… or it could refer to death: “because of death, all have sinned.”

I feel comfortable exploring this idea, because that is how the Eastern Orthodox Church reads the passage.

And it would explain a lot, wouldn’t it? Greed and self-centeredness all stem from impatience – and death makes impatience logically coherent – it makes immediate gratification make sense. Sebastian Moore said, "Death as ultimate horizon lets sin make as much sense as sin can make." In other words, if there is only death, then our impatience and our determination to have it now, and to have as much of it as we can before death takes it all away from us, makes that attitude as logically and morally coherent as it's possible for it to be.

If there’s only death, then we can justify doing whatever it takes to get ahead, and to do it quickly – not in God’s time, or God’s way, but in our time, which is always right now. We can put commerce and profit above people. We can ignore the suffering of others if it gets in the way of the stock market. We can make it all about me, and me alone.

I think that there’s an aspect of this in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus is being tempted. He's tempted in the wilderness, and these are not merely temptations to power or appetite, or what have you. These are Messianic temptations, and they’re centered around Christ’s mission on earth – the ministry.

“Jesus, you know, you don’t need to be hungry. Just say the word, and you’ll have more food than you could eat in a lifetime. No? OK. Look, if you’re gonna be the Messiah and all, you need to make a big entrance, I mean, bigger than Lady Gaga showing up at the Oscars in an egg, you know? Here’s what you do: jump off the highest part of the Temple here, a real swan dive, and when you don’t splatter on the ground, because angels show up and save you, then no one will be able to dispute who you are, right? It’ll be awesome! Oh, you don’t like that either? Well. OK, look, if you’re the Messiah, then you’ll be running things, so I can get you set up as king of the world, you know, fast-track the whole thing. I got connections, y’know? All you gotta do is follow my lead, and you’ll be king of everything in no time.”

Jesus is being offered the opportunity, as the devil presents it, to bring about the Kingdom of God, the full manifestation of Christ, right now, by doing something so dazzling that nobody could miss it. Everybody would recognize Jesus as Christ instantly! No muss, no fuss, no suffering, no cross! Of course, in each case, Jesus rejects these temptations. Think of it – Jesus forfeits the three greatest powers at his disposal, miracle, mystery, and authority. Instead, he accepts God's plan. Jesus will soon preach good news to the poor and release to captives, relieve the bruised, cleanse lepers, and heal the blind and crippled. Of course, he will be opposed immediately. Forces that traffic in human misery and reap huge profits from the poverty of others will try any means to turn him from such a ministry. But he will perform miracles with bread. He will survive violent attempts to make him king by force. People will come from all around to hear what he has to say. And he will do all of these things in God’s time.

Perhaps, then, the lesson for us in Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, and the lesson of Lent, is patience. It all began in the Garden, and for too many people, it appears to end at the grave, and because of this, nothing but the here and now and what we can get out of it matter.

So, yes, Lent is a little about us in that it reminds us of who we are, and it reminds us that the grave is not at all where it ends. It’s too easy to forget that we Christians, we are Resurrection people. We don’t need to rush, to have it all now, to do even good things in our time rather than God’s time. We have all the time in the world.

In the Resurrection of Christ Jesus, we have the promise that death is not our ultimate horizon; life is. That does not mean, of course, that we should not pour ourselves out to the very last drop. But it means that God is patient, and that we are patient, and that the Holy Spirit is bringing about the transformation of the world gradually, and that we needn't panic. The victory has already been accomplished at the Cross.

So this Lent, I invite you to join me in learning to practice patience, remembering that Christ is the Lord of History and the Cross is the turning point in history. The full presence of Christ in history is simply a matter of time, so give it time! Take your part in it. Don't be impatient. Don't be anxious. God is with us, Immanuel.


  1. i struggle so much w/ this "patience" thingy... john, this sermon made me struggle. thankyou. may it move people this morning.

  2. Nice job! I like incorporating the comment from that doofus on CNBC. The news is something one can hear in passing and we need people like you to help us hear the irony in those statements. As if human lives are economic capital to be traded and sold short. Thanks, John.